MG's Chinese owners are determined to make it a great brand again - Richard Bremner visited SAIC's new plant in Shanghai to find out about its plans.
MG and Roewe's two year old Lingang Factory is an impressive sight. Said to be the most modern in China and set on a huge greenfield site outside Shanghai, it is every inch the advanced, sophisticated plant that its Chinese owners wanted it to be.
The only thing that seems out of place at this site is the badge – a large MG octagon emblazoned at the entrance, and a familiar Rover based Roewe badge as well.
The Lingang factory is very different from MG’s old home at Longbridge, and it will need to be if MG and Roewe are to achieve the level of success expected of it by parent company Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.
Longbridge, MG Rover’s old home in Birmingham, is now a shabby and apparently silent remnant of what was once the largest car factory in Europe. The last time any serious new buildings were built at Longbridge was in the run up to the launch of the Metro, 30 years ago.
So, here in China, it's something of a shock to see so many new buildings and shiny new hardware dedicated to making cars wearing MG badges.
SAIC is China’s biggest car manufacturer, with its joint ventures alongside General Motors and Volkswagen producing millions of cars annually.
But while SAIC is a massively successful builder of other people’s cars, its long term ambition is to manufacturer vehicles under its own brands and become the leading car maker in China. MG and Roewe are a major part of those plans, chiefly with the MG3, MG6, Roewe 350 hatchback and 550 saloon.
These cars are currently easing off the end of a quiet and well-organised production line in a relentless stream. Roewe’s sales have risen by 358 per cent in the first four months of the year, and MG’s by 211 per cent as SAIC targets the lucrative Chinese market.
The Lingang plant is building the MG6 hatch and Roewe 350 saloon, and a chance to drive them both fresh off the production line highlights their promise. The MG6 has pleasingly tidy handling and the interior is decently appealing, if a little plasticky. The suspension is quiet and structure strong, the impressive refinement only broken by the stressed sounding N-series turbocharged engine.
This is important, as the MG6 will be built in the UK at Longbridge by the end of this year in 1.8 turbocharged form.
SAIC product planning boss Liu Tao says, “Our vision is to exploit overseas markets. They will be very important for us.” This is where the UK comes in, as it will form SAIC’s manufacturing and export base in Europe. Longbridge is also the key engineering and design centre for SAIC’s own brands, and all new Roewes and MGs are created here by a staff of 300. They’re working on a new diesel engine aimed specifically at Europe too.
The just unveiled MG Zero city car is also a candidate for production at Longbridge, alongside the MG6. “With the MG6 to sell, we have one range,” says European sales and marketing boss Guy Jones. “The smaller models give us a business plan and a brand with a future.”
So while the massive growth and success of MG and Roewe in China continues, does this mean a return to real car production at the historic Longbridge site? If SAIC can successfully re-establish MG in Europe, and if the expected reclassification of China’s currency occurs, then there is a real chance the factory really will be turning out tens of thousands of cars again. And if our drives in the MG6 are anything to go by, the cars will be worth the wait.